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The evolution of unified communications technologies

Over the years, unified communications tools have evolved to incorporate different modes of collaboration. Enterprises need to be receptive to this ongoing innovation.

Everything starts from something.

If you believe evolution is the natural state of things, you can see where unified communications technologies are going and why. Of course, you can believe UC simply arrived one day on our desks, fully formed with a perfect user experience that made us wonder how we ever got work done before.

I can't think of any technology that's done that. And, more importantly, five years from now, unified communications technologies still won't be perfect. To understand why, let's look at the UC journey up to now and what UC's evolution can tell us about what's coming.

How did we get here?

In the beginning, there were desk phones, typewriters and telecopiers, and businesses seemed to function just fine. Everyone went home at 5 p.m., and most business matters could wait until tomorrow.

As the digital age unfolded, these devices were replaced by switched phone systems, PCs, email and fax machines. The pace of business was faster, these innovations allowed workers to communicate in modern time, and businesses continued to function just fine.

When the internet came along, the pace of business really accelerated, and businesses weren't functioning so fine. That's still the case today, and a key reason is the model for communication was no longer working. PCs have replaced desk phones as the hub of communications. And as internet protocol becomes the common fabric for all data, multimodal communication has become the norm.

The demands of business today require these modes be used in an integrated fashion, rather than the stand-alone basis that has defined the workplace for so long. On top of that, the internet has spawned other communication modes that can be used effectively at work, such as video and instant messaging. Furthermore, mobility has greatly expanded the communications landscape.

Clearly, technology has evolved greatly to bring us to current-day UC. While UC's value proposition may not be intuitive, the islands of communications that worked well in simpler times are not effective today.

unified communications evolution

Where are unified communications technologies headed?

The dynamics of adopting unified communications technologies are complex. The key issue is an unclear value proposition.

To understand the future, we must first understand the past.

First-generation unified communications technologies were developed primarily by PBX vendors -- not because they had a prescient vision for enterprise collaboration, but because they needed a successor for their phone systems. Times were changing, and this was no longer a growth business for them. As such, their UC offerings were telephony-centric, mainly to make adoption easier, but also to ensure customers didn't go to a competitor when shifting to UC.

That said, the dynamics of adopting unified communications technologies are complex. The key issue is an unclear value proposition. While the need to enable workers to use multiple communication apps has become evident, it was less clear why and how UC would be the solution.

UC is very much a vendor-driven concept. And while first-generation vendors created the market, other technologies evolved at a faster pace.

In terms of unified communications technologies, two major changes were taking place -- namely the rise of messaging and the growing preference for mobility as a mode for working. Additionally, a younger generation of workers introduced new work habits. As a result, enterprises are now faced with a growing contingent of employees who do not use desk phones and prefer messaging over voice communication.

Established UC vendors tend to change slowly. Still tied to phone systems, these vendors lagged in addressing these shifts. Other players entered the market and focused on supporting these new ways of working.

Now, we have two classes of providers with offerings that are distinct from UC. One class is team messaging, best embodied by the likes of Slack; the other is communications platform as a service, or CPaaS, best embodied by the likes of Twilio. Both are providing new and different forms of value to enterprises and represent disruptive forms of evolution for the communication needs that UC tried to address initially.

What can we learn from this?

It's important to be open-minded and ... receptive to new platforms as they come along.

The main takeaway is UC addresses a broad set of needs, both for communications and collaboration. These needs are not easily defined, and clearly there is more than one way to do these things.

Unified communications technologies keep evolving, and new applications will emerge as they respond to changing work styles. Another emerging trend to watch is artificial intelligence, and we're just starting see its effect on enterprise communications.

Decision-makers need to recognize that UC -- and the broader realm of communications and collaboration -- will continue to evolve.

Unlike the PBX, UC is not an investment that lasts 15 years, so your perspective on the value of these technologies may need to change. Choosing the right type of service is important. But it's more important to be open-minded and realize that one service probably won't be the answer, and be receptive to new platforms as they come along.

This was last published in February 2018

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In your opinion, what's the future of unified communications tools?
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Nice Article Jon.  You clearly explain the complex and evolving environment. Sara Uzel

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